Mr. Speaker, I am here today to honour the victims of the recent violence in southern Saskatchewan and particularly the James Smith Cree Nation: 10 lives lost, 18 lives changed forever, a community shattered, and a province and country in shock. We are here to honour the victims by remembering them, supporting their community in their grief and committing ourselves to doing whatever is necessary to make sure this kind of outrage never happens again.
No death is solitary. Every death leaves a hole in the hearts of a family and a void in a community. This is especially true in rural and remote regions, where people rely on each other to survive and where so many people are related through blood and marriage. As Mark Arcand, whose sister was among the victims, put it, “This is how it is in our country.... It's all about relationships. It's all about family.”
The violence two weeks ago took the lives of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, aunts and uncles, neighbours, friends and familiar faces. Each one of them was known and loved.
Let us pause to honour them by offering our respect to each of them by name: Bonnie Goodvoice-Burns, aged 48, a mother, grandmother and foster mother who died trying to protect her son, Gregory “Jonesy” Burns, who was also killed; Lydia Gloria Burns, a first responder who was attacked while responding to a call to help Bonnie and Gregory Burns; Carol Burns, who was visiting her two children, one of whom, Thomas Burns, also died; Earl Burns Sr., a veteran who had already survived an attempted stabbing by the same perpetrator seven years earlier; Lana Head and her partner Christian Head, who together leave behind 10 children and more grandchildren; Robert Sanderson, a father whose son was also injured in the attack; and Wesley Petterson, a 78-year-old widower from nearby Weldon, Saskatchewan. There are 10 enormous holes in the James Smith Cree Nation and surrounding communities. As one headline put it, “everyone lost someone”.
Healing takes time. It is a journey. The families and friends left behind have a long journey ahead of them, but I have faith that strength will carry the James Smith Cree Nation through. It is the same strength that has helped that community survive and work through the immense trauma of history over many years. The reason I have faith and hope is that while evil is real and strong, faith, hope and love are stronger. Where we can help, we will.
I know the federal government is working with local community leaders. I note that the minister has been to visit and I thank her for that. I offer my party's full support for any government actions that bring healing to the community, especially for the children who have seen what no child should ever see, and for those struggling with mental illness or addiction problems, who will find these times especially trying.
We can honour the victims and survivors by providing more effective recovery services to more people to help them get out of the cycle of violence and toward hope and healing. That is the least that compassion and respect demand of us. However, we must not allow our compassion to tempt us into complacency and stop us from asking the hard questions about our criminal justice system.
This tragedy was not a random act of fate. It was the result of a string of failings stretching back more than a decade. The question that Chief Wally Burns asked when he learned about the perpetrator's criminal history should be ringing in the ears of everyone in the House: “Why was this guy released when he was dangerous?” I also agree with Brian Burns, whose wife and son were killed, when he said, ”There needs to be some kind of an inquiry. The families need answers.”
As a husband and a father, I can only imagine the sense of deep betrayal he must feel when he thinks about the callous negligence of our criminal justice system, which let this violent criminal out to recommit offences again and again, not just in this case, but for more than a decade. The perpetrator, who I am deliberately not naming, had been charged with over 120 crimes in 47 cases over the last 14 years. He had been convicted 59 times. There are likely more, but his youth record is sealed.
At least two of those previous victims were also victims of the most recent violence: his in-laws Earl Burns, who died, and Joyce Burns, who was wounded. The first time, back in 2015, he was charged with attempted murder, but he was allowed to plead guilty to a lesser offence and was only sentenced to two years less a day in prison. It has also been reported that he assaulted the mother of his children five times between 2011 and 2018. He never received more than a two-month sentence for any of those assaults. Each time, he was set free to to attack again.
What happened in northern Saskatchewan two weeks ago should be a national wake-up call. The James Smith Cree Nation was not only the victim of a violent criminal, but also the victim of a broken criminal justice system. We all agree in the possibility of redemption and in rehabilitation. We believe that, if someone makes a mistake and does their time, they should have a second chance at being part of society, but when someone commits one violent offence after another so that they number in the dozens, at some point they must stay behind bars for the protection of the public and out of respect for their victims. A system that allows a violent criminal to reoffend over and over again with impunity does not deserve to be called a justice system. Leaving victims vulnerable to repeat attacks by a violent felon is not criminal justice. It is criminal negligence.
I agree with Brian Burns. I want to know how this could have happened, and most importantly, I want to know how we can make sure it never happens again. We will not honour the victims and the community if we do not listen to them. We must listen, and then we must act. There must be a top-to-bottom review. We need to know why criminal charges against this violent felon were so often stayed or withdrawn; why the parole boards repeatedly recommended his release despite deeming him a threat; why his sentences were so short, even after third and fourth violent convictions; and why Correctional Service Canada did not deem him sufficiently likely to reoffend, even after more than 50 convictions in 14 years, and failed to recommend against his statutory release.
A thorough review is important because the devastation experienced by this community was not an isolated incident. Since 2015, violent crime has increased in Canada by 32%. The violent crime severity index is up 18 points, and there were more than 124,000 violent crimes last year than there were in 2015. The violent crime rate is up in all 13 provinces and territories. Clearly, something is wrong and getting worse. We need to know what it is, and we need to fix it.
There are no words that can adequately capture the devastation that the James Smith Cree Nation has suffered and, indeed, the pain all Canadians felt at the stories of this unthinkable horror. The stories were of violence and an ongoing manhunt, but soon after the stories changed and we began to hear stories of the lives of the victims. These are the stories that had been previously filled with laughter, often amid personal struggle, and stories of a community bound together by bonds of love and support, now united by grief. They are the stories of people who are, in Mark Arcand's words, “broken but not defeated.”
Today we offer our respect to the departed and the survivors. In words that can only imperfectly convey sorrow, we offer our sympathy, but if we have only words, then we will have failed the James Smith Cree Nation again. It is time for these failures to end. It is time for our words to transform into actions, and it is time for all of us to rally in support of this wonderful community and its beautiful members as they heal and recover from these terrible events.